As his City Council squared off over Iron Eagle Golf Course, a frustrated North Platte Mayor Dwight Livingston said Thursday night that he has discussed the course’s possible sale with potential buyers.
The mayor made his disclosure when the council’s budget debate dissolved into open dissension over Iron Eagle, with Councilman Ty Lucas accusing him of refusing to let council members decide whether to call a special election on the star-crossed course.
It also followed Chief Development Inc. leader Roger Bullington’s statements to the council Tuesday night and The Telegraph on Wednesday that Iron Eagle’s presence is desirable but not a deal-breaker for his firm’s multimillion-dollar development package.
Livingston said he had worked with Chief’s leaders all year before the Grand Island firm Aug. 12 proposed investing up to $40 million in industrial and commercial projects along Interstate 80 and a “senior living” housing complex just west of the golf course.
“I’ve been talking to them for eight months ... but I’ve had to be quiet about it,” the mayor said. “Now during those conversations, not only did I talk to Chief many times, I’ve talked to some individuals that are interested in taking over the golf course.
“Now, unfortunately, when you keep talking about the golf course, how can you be successful in enticing somebody to come here and take that over if you continually slam the golf course?”
When the 70-minute special meeting ended, the $146.7 million 2019-20 budget had won 5-3 approval with only minor tinkering to Iron Eagle’s budget and no move to reverse a $3.25 million transfer from city electric funds to wipe out the course’s deficit.
Lucas and colleagues Jim Carman and Ed Rieker voted “no,” duplicating Tuesday night’s 5-3 council split in favor of a $1 million Quality Growth Fund “performance loan” to help launch Chief ‘s development package.
The budget’s 0.7% increase in the city’s property tax request over 2018-19 was approved on a 6-2 vote, with Lucas joining Jim Backenstose, Andrew Lee, Jim Nisley, Lawrence Ostendorf and Glenn Petersen in favor.
By voting against the budget, Lucas kept a vow he made a few minutes earlier to oppose it unless Livingston would commit to calling an Iron Eagle election within two months in exchange for Lucas’ “yes” vote.
The first-year Ward 2 councilman read a statement saying he had researched a possible Iron Eagle petition drive after Livingston had declined “numerous requests” to put the matter on a council agenda.
“The council’s historic resistance to facing this ongoing sentiment has resulted in significant negativity and distrust of city government in our community,” Lucas said in his statement.
Livingston replied that Lucas made one of his requests at a meeting that included three other council members, not all of whom agreed that the city should close or sell Iron Eagle.
“I did not ignore you. You know that,” he said. “You know this discussion (about Chief) has been going on for quite some time. ... You forget that there are other council members here. It’s not just you.”
Opinions on Iron Eagle from the other council members ran the gamut of possible futures, from Rieker saying city government should focus on public safety and basic services to Backenstose saying it’s not certain Iron Eagle’s privately owned competitors will remain indefinitely.
Carman said he would favor an election but the council ought to be able to fashion a solution, such as reducing the flood-plagued course from 18 to nine holes.
“Golf on the high ground and let the frogs have the low ground,” Carman said.
Closing Iron Eagle outright might not save the city much money, Lee said, but its sale or lease should be explored. “The political toxicity around Iron Eagle is going to inhibit that location until the city is not the main handler for it.”
Nisley said Iron Eagle’s lower green fees in relation to its private competitors “sticks in the craw of the people.” Besides raising those fees, he said, the city ought to negotiate with the Glenn Chase family to get clear ownership of the course.
“If we can’t get a resolution on that in the next year, I’m going to change my mind on Iron Eagle,” said Nisley, the council president.
Recreation also should be among a city’s priorities, Petersen said, while Ostendorf noted that the latest round in the 25-year-old Iron Eagle controversy has lasted a year “and I don’t see a bit of difference.”
Livingston urged all residents to recognize the potential of Chief’s projects — with Iron Eagle nearby — to remake the city’s east Interstate 80 entrance and energize North Platte’s economy for years to come.
“They’re willing to come to North Platte” despite the golf course controversy,” he said. “I would like to see that happen. And if they do that, I guarantee you more businesses will come to that area. They’ll just fall right in.”
Before diving deeply into the Iron Eagle debate, council members voted 8-0 to wipe out a $197,165 “contingency” line item in the golf course budget by moving $200,000 from Iron Eagle to the general fund’s contingency budget.
The move had the effect of cutting the overall Iron Eagle budget from $759,613 to $559,613 and changing a projected 31.6% spending increase for the course to a 3.1% cut.
City Administrator Jim Hawks said the overall $3.25 million transfer from Municipal Light & Water’s surplus electric funds was more than the $2.97 million needed to retire Iron Eagle’s cumulative deficit.
The difference was meant to backstop Iron Eagle’s costs for the coming year, but it can be held in the general fund until and unless it’s needed, he said.
Lucas supported the proposal, saying the original plan to hold the contingency money in Iron Eagle’s budget falsely implied the council was raising day-to-day spending there.
The $200,000 shift didn’t change the overall city budget’s bottom line, Hawks said, so it didn’t require the council to put off a final vote to publish a public notice. The 2019-20 fiscal year starts Oct. 1.